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The gloves come off on Heath Ledger.

The gloves come off on Heath Ledger. (photo)

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It had to happen eventually. The reverential haze surrounding the late Heath Ledger was bound to dispel. And it’s David Thomson, critic, film historian and actor-crazed obsessive who once wrote a whole book about Nicole Kidman in which he gasped over her “gingery pubic hair,” who’s stepped up to bat first.

Thomson takes actors and their iconography very seriously indeed (in quasi-Penthouse style if they’re female), and — on the occasion of the British release of “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” which features Ledger’s last role — he expresses some skepticism about how good the Australian actor actually was.

Thomson digs the Joker more than Ennis del Mar, because during “Brokeback Mountain” he “never lost some feeling… of watching an actor attempting a very tricky role” But what he really wonders about is what would’ve happened if Ledger had lived on, comparing him to other once-bright stars who shot out of the gate fast, only to wind up playing themselves over and over: Mickey Rourke doing his comeback as “Mickey Rourke,” Brad Pitt “overwhelmed by spurious celebrity and dreadful star parts,” Pacino, De Niro and Nicholson now “pastiches of what they once were.”

It’s true that, for whatever reason, Hollywood tends to give actors about ten years before they’ve created too many recognizable tics to step outside of. Think of Robert Downey Jr., once up for the stunt part of a flawless Chaplin and somehow making it fresh, now noted primarily for playing many amusing variations on “Robert Downey Jr.”: wisecracking, ahead of the comic beat by two seconds, justifiably self-regarding.

But those are the breaks. Thomson’s right that Ledger, like everyone else, probably wouldn’t have been able to get away with giving completely different performances in every movie. But that’s hardly tragic: the ability to create a persona and mine it for subtle nuances leads to reliable pleasures.

The difference between the “tragedy” of Brando (if you want to think of that way) and actors like Downey, Pitt, and so on is that they’ve gotten a reliably amusing schtick down that’s always fun and rewarding even when it’s not surprising. Would Ledger have ended up in that purgatory? Impossible to say — he hadn’t yet made two straight films in which he was the same guy, but even if he had, he’d still have had a decade to himself. If you’re going to be A Star, that’s how it is. If you want to be An Actor, you can be Gary Oldman, which surely has its own rewards, but is not the same thing.

[Photo: “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2009]

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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